When planning our Alaska trip, I wasn't sure about visiting Fairbanks. The city didn't seem to have the same appeal as Denali, the Kenai Peninsula, or Valdez. After doing some research, I found that there were many things to do in Fairbanks. So we went there. And we had a great time!
And now I'm sharing these ideas in this blog post! I'll also cover some more general topics, such as when to visit Fairbanks, what to wear while doing so, and even why visit the place at all (other than the awesome attractions!)
One of the charms of Alaska is its unpredictable weather, and Fairbanks is no exception. You can enjoy even this part of our northernmost state with a little planning.
Visiting Fairbanks - Weather Considerations
Summers in Fairbanks are similar to spring in the lower 48, with temperature highs between 60˚ and 80˚F and nighttime lows in the 40˚s to 50˚s. In September, temperatures drop, with cooler winter temperatures and snow beginning in October.
During wintertime, the temperature is almost always below 0˚ at night and usually stays that way during the day. Though some days get above zero Fahrenheit, they rarely get above freezing - after all, this is the coldest city in the US!
Here's what Fairbanks averages look like according to NOAA -
Snow seems to taper off in March, with April and May being the driest months of the year. Even on dry days, though, you can expect some cloud cover, which helps to keep those daytime temperatures cooler.
Check out this cute short video of what it's like to live in Fairbanks during wintertime -
Another of Alaska’s charms is its fluctuation in daytime hours, varying greatly from summer to winter. From mid-May to near the end of July, Fairbanks has 24-hour twilight. Though the sun has set during this time, it is still easily light enough outside for outdoor activities.
Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year, falling on June 21, with the sun setting for only two hours! Fairbanks never has 24-hour darkness, but on Winter Solstice, December 21, the sun is in the sky for under four hours.
So, what's the best time to visit Fairbanks, Alaska?
While peak visiting season falls from mid-May to mid-September, there are reasons to visit Fairbanks in any season. Most tours are in full swing during peak season, but you may find discounts on attractions and accommodations during the off-season.
Just before or after peak season can be the best time to score discounted prices while still catching most, if not all, of the local attractions.
Summer is the most popular time to visit for many reasons, such as the longer daytime hours, the lush and blooming plant life, and the warmer temperatures. This is especially important since most tourists choose Alaska for its natural appeal and spend the majority of their time in outdoor activities.
However, there is no shortage of cold weather activities in the area for those seeking Fairbanks’ winter beauty. Or so they tell me. I am not sure I am brave enough to try that myself!
For more helpful insights, check out these 25 essential Alaska travel tips for a successful trip.
What to wear while visiting Fairbanks
The key to Alaskan clothing is smart layering, regardless of the season you visit. In peak season, the temperatures are warmer, though rainy, so you must plan to adjust your layers as needed.
Expect rain and wind from spring to early fall, so bring a backpack to tuck your outer layers in when not needed. Your inner layer should be long underwear or active wear that will wick the sweat and moisture from your skin while keeping you warm.
Smart layering in Alaska (and elsewhere, too, really)
Beware of cotton; it is absorbent and can pull the heat from your body. Your middle layer is insulating and can be a fleece jacket or sweater during cooler temperatures.
For the unpredictable Fairbanks weather, ensure you have the right layers. Check out these comfortable thermal wear options and waterproof jackets on Amazon.
Lightweight synthetic and down jackets with a water-repellant outer shell are gaining popularity for their warmth and breathability. The only downside to those is the nice price tag that comes along with them.
A lightweight middle layer can also help when adjusting for warmer temperatures, as they pack up smaller and fit nicely in your backpack. During drier times, you can also wear them as outer layers.
The outer layer is the most important; it is your first protection against the elements. You want something waterproof (not water-resistant) and breathable to stay warm and dry in all Alaskan summer weather.
This outer layer is often a thin outer jacket, such as Gore-Tex. If you plan outdoor activities, you may also want to invest in nylon pants to dry your legs. Do not cut corners here, as the less expensive “waterproof” items are treated with a coating that does not breathe, trapping your heat inside and creating condensation. The result is that you wind up wet anyway.
Choose quality items that will last longer and offer a more pleasant Alaskan experience! A thin pair of gloves and a thin beanie are worth bringing, as well, since they are lightweight and easy to pack.
What to wear when visiting Fairbanks in Summertime
Because the weather can be unpredictable, summer visitors should also bring shorts and short-sleeved shirts, just in case. This is especially true for those who enjoy outdoor activities.
On a personal note, we enjoyed fair August weather during our four days in Fairbanks. It was never too hot, and it rained occasionally, but overall, there was no problem with walking around in shorts and tee shirts. So definitely bring those as well, so you're not stuck with garments that make you feel too hot.
What to wear when visiting Fairbanks in wintertime
If you plan to visit during winter, your layers will look slightly different from their summer counterparts. Your inner layer should be a mid- or heavyweight wool or synthetic item that fits snugly to your body. Again, NO COTTON! You will need tops and bottoms for your inner layer.
Your middle layer will be a looser-fitting, mid-weight jacket. Finishing your outer layer should be a down, synthetic parka, or heavier jacket. If you are actively moving around, you may not need this outer layer all the time, but you will appreciate having this with you.
You will also want snow pants if you plan to be in deeper snow. Mittens are preferred over gloves, as they keep your fingers together and trap heat better. You can also invest in hand warmers, which you can tuck into the mittens.
If you plan to take many photos, you can wear a thin pair of gloves inside the mittens. This allows you to enjoy your photography adventure without exposing your fingers to the elements. A hat and balaclava combination is also a wise choice. This protects more of your face and head from windburn and/or frostbite.
If you plan to be active, you can substitute the hat for a headband to keep your ears warm and happy. Gaiters are another winter necessity if you plan to be in the snow. These will keep the snow out of your boots and are relatively inexpensive.
Don't forget you'll be walking a lot!
As mentioned, visiting Alaska typically means lots of walking, so you must bring well-loved, broken-in shoes. Hiking boots straight from the box will leave you blistered and hurting before long and ruin your trip.
If you have nothing at home already, you can purchase some lightweight hikers with good traction. Bringing two pairs is wise in case one gets wet. If you are concerned about keeping your feet dry, invest in some Gore-Tex socks, which you can wear over your regular, non-cotton socks.
The key is to ensure you break in any brand-new shoes before your trip – your feet will thank you. Invest in some warm boots or stock up on toe warmers in winter. Winter boots must be rated for between -20˚ and -40˚. Use toe warmers if you already have a pair but are concerned about how warm they will be.
You will want warmers rated for very cold temperatures; some even have a sticky side that adheres to your socks and helps them stay in place. Ensure they have a long life since you will not want to stop and replace them every 20 minutes.
Why visit Fairbanks?
One of the most exciting things about our trip to Alaska last summer was that we were heading north. Way out north. We would get as far north in Alaska as possible with a rental car. Which meant Fairbanks.
You see, while Alaska is one of the largest US states, it doesn't have a lot of paved roads. Let's say you're driving to Alaska. Once you've reached the state, you'll find that the number of inland roads is fairly limited.
Heading north, you will have to take one of two roads -
- The Richardson Highway (Highway 3), or
- The George Parks Highway (Highway 2).
And both of them end in Fairbanks. So, when trying to head as far up north in Alaska as you can, you'll be reaching Fairbanks. And if you're driving a rented vehicle, like we were, that's almost as far up north as possible.
If you keep heading north, you can drive another couple of hours, and then you'll get to the Dalton Highway (where your rental insurance coverage stops because of road conditions).
Considering a road trip to Alaska? Here's our complete guide based on personal experience.
Fortunately, there are plenty of things to do in Fairbanks!
Our Alaska road trip included a long drive from Los Angeles to Alaska and back. We pushed forward for almost three weeks, with Fairbanks being our first "longish" stop in Alaska. Staying in Fairbanks for four nights gave us three full days to explore the city.
I can't say that we got to see everything I had on my list, but we did see and do quite a bit. I'm sharing a mixed list here - both things we did and didn't - hoping it will help you create the best Fairbanks itinerary for your trip.
Is this the full list of things to do in Fairbanks? No, it is not. If you're going to Fairbanks and have more time to spend, there's plenty more to do! Just make sure you stop in the Morris Thompson Visitors Center (the first item on this list!) and dig in for more ideas!
Planning more Alaskan travels? Here are nine itineraries from Anchorage, suitable with or without a car.
#1 Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center
Visiting for a few days? Make the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center your first stop. This large Visitors Center provides you with a great introduction to Alaska. You can learn much from the exhibitions and get essential visitor information about the state.
This is not your conventional visitor center but more like a small museum. The Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center educates visitors and residents alike about the history of Interior Alaska through realistic exhibits and displays.
There is plenty to take in as you walk through a series of detailed scenes that show and discuss the area's flora, fauna, and human history. National Parks rangers offer free guided tours just outside the center, where they tell you a little bit about the history of Alaska and Fairbanks.
We took the tour and learned quite a lot about the tension between Alaska and the federal government through the eyes of a ranger. That tour alone is worth adding to your list of things to do in Fairbanks - both educational and entertaining!
We liked this cool gate they have outside, made out of moose antlers.
Last but not least, since this is also a visitors' center, you also have the usual array of hiking maps, bus schedules, tour brochures, and advice from the people who run the visitors' center.
If you have more time, use this initial visit to fine-tune your list of things to do in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Location: 101 Dunkel St, Fairbanks, AK 99701-4806
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday – Winter – 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. – Summer – 8:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M.
Admission Fees: ALL – FREE
#2 Pioneer Historic Park
This park was established to commemorate the centennial of the Alaska Purchase. Lots to see and do here, or you can stroll around to soak up the atmosphere. If you want to taste the city's history, prioritize Pioneer Historic Park in your list of things to do in Fairbanks.
What we liked the best was the gold-rush area with genuine pioneer log cabins! As Fairbanks kept growing, local history fans moved the old cabins from across the city to be preserved in Pioneer Park.
There's not much to do within them, but they make a nice visual reminder of life in the old times.
One of the best attractions is the giant sternwheeler ship inside the theme park: Riverboat Nenana. It is docked in dry soil and open for tours – makes you wonder how the people transported this large vessel right in the middle of the city!
The park has a playground at the center for kids to absorb the Alaskan vibe. You can ride the Tanana Valley Railroad Museum if you don't feel like walking. It’s an on-site interpretive train ride that will take you back to the era of the gold rush.
Don't expect too much of the museums, though. We tried two of them: The Pioneer Museum and the Pioneer Air Museum. Both were very old-fashioned, with huge collections of strange artifacts displayed in ways that didn't make sense and without too many explanations.
They were interesting but not what you expect from a "museum" in the 21st century. On the plus side, they were very affordable, costing only a couple of bucks to see.
So overall, add this park to your list of things to do in Fairbanks, but be flexible with the time you allocate for it in your itinerary.
Location: 907 Terminal St., Fairbanks, AK 99701
Opening Hours: Every day: 5:00 A.M. to Midnight
Admission Fees: ALL: FREE – Certain museums have fees.
Are you interested in even more Alaskan history and culture? Discover 17 awesome things to do in Skagway, Alaska.
#3 Museum of the North
For a more in-depth and modern look at Fairbanks, try the Museum of the North. This museum has enough artifacts and attractions to keep you busy for at least a couple of hours and possibly - if you like to dig in and read - for longer.
You’ll see art and treasures inside that are as old as 2000 years! The place also holds life-size replicas of Alaskan wildlife past and present (like the giant extinct steppe bison). They also have the state’s largest collection of gold.
For an additional fee, you can watch science movies in the auditorium. While they're interesting, the movies were pretty general when we were there and didn't deal specifically with Alaska.
Location: 1962 Yukon DR, Fairbanks, AK 99775-9702
Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday – 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.
Admission Fees: Adult (15+) – $14 – Youth (5-14) – $8 – Alaska-based military families (with ID) – FREE – UA Staff / Faculty – $5 – UA Students with ID – FREE – Members – FREE
Wildlife enthusiasts will enjoy these top activities in Haines, Alaska, including bear viewing.
#4 Georgeson Botanical Garden
The Georgeson Botanical Garden is a research facility within the University of Alaska. It's also home to a diverse native and introduced plants blooming in summer under the Midnight sun.
The garden is filled with beautiful flowers and an array of garden beds – truly a feast for the eyes! Also, if you haven’t seen gigantic cabbages, now is your chance! We spent a few hours there, not including a picnic - just strolling around, admiring the plants.
We enjoyed it, and I took so many photos that I will add a blog post about our visit there. For now, just wanted to mention it here for your list of things to do in Fairbanks.
If you're traveling with kids, they can have fun in their children’s garden with a playhouse and a small outdoor labyrinth.
Location: 117 W Tanana Dr, Fairbanks, AK 99775-0001
Opening Hours: Every day – 9:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M.
Admission Fees: Adult: $5 – Children (6 and under): FREE
#5 Large Animal Research Station
Locally known as LARS, the Large Animal Research Station is a hidden jewel in Fairbanks. Both locals and tourists visit LARS to view the muskoxen and reindeer. If you love science and animals, make LARS one of Fairbanks's top things to do.
We loved LARS and learned so much during our visit there that I dedicated an entire post to share our impressions. Check out my post about our visit to LARS in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Location: 2220 Yankovich Rd, Fairbanks, AK 99709
Summer Schedule: Wednesday: 9:30 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. – Thursday to Sunday: 9:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M.
Winter Schedule: Pre-arranged tours for groups or classes.
Admission Fees: $10 per person for the regular tour
#6 Riverboat Discovery
Taking the Sternwheeler Riverboat Discovery tour is an exceptional Alaskan experience: A three-hour cruise along the Chena River and into the heart of Alaska.
The Riverboat Discovery cruise is about the spots you will visit along the river. These include:
- The Chena Indian Village (including a guided tour by a native Athabascan)
- Sledding dogs kennels
- A float plane in action
While it all sounds great, the trip is fairly expensive. We could only budget one cruise on our Alaska trip and chose to take the more expensive - but longer and very different - Kenai Fjords cruise.
However, I had to include the Riverboat Discovery cruise in this list of things to do in Fairbanks because it does sound pretty awesome, and they have fantastic reviews.
Location: 1975 Discovery Dr, Fairbanks, AK 99709
Opening Hours: Every day: Boat leaves at 9:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M.
Admission Fees: Adult: $64.95 – Child: $39.95 – Infants (3 under): FREE
#7 Running Reindeer Ranch
The Running Reindeer Ranch is another unique item on the list of things to do in Fairbanks. Visit them, and you'll walk with the reindeer and come close to them. You can take many pictures and appreciate them doing “reindeer” things in their natural habitat.
It's not cheap, and you have to schedule in advance, but if you're looking for unique close encounters with animals, you may want to try it.
Location: 1470 Ivans Aly, Goldstream Valley, Fairbanks, AK
Opening Hours: Strictly no drop-ins; book first.
Admission Fees: Adult – $55 – Children (3-12) – $35 – Children (under 3) – FREE
#8 Chena Hot Springs
The Chena Hot Springs is a great addition to your bucket list of things to do in Fairbanks! As you can see in the map below, that little pin away from the rest of the pins is the Chena Hot Springs resort.
In other words, this property is 60 miles away from Fairbanks International Airport. Since there's no town there, just a resort, Chena certainly deserves a spot on the things to do in Fairbanks list.
Chena Hot Springs is the kind of winter attraction where you can bathe outdoors while it's snowing. They're also open during summertime, but you won't get the same experience. Here's a photo of the place in the snow -
We visited Chena Hot Springs for the ice museum (more on that in the next item), and we're not hot springs people, so we didn't get into the water. However, here are a few tips for visiting the hot springs (based on reviews from TripAdvisor) -
Chena Hot Springs Visitors Tips
Consider bringing the following with you when visiting the Hot Springs -
- Special shower footwear. The hot springs pools have a “no shoe” rule, so you can walk the locker room barefoot or wear a pair of clean shower jelly shower shoes.
- Quarters for the lockers. If you don't bring them, you'll have to spend precious minutes waiting at the reception to get coins.
- Your towel. So you won't have to rent one at an additional fee.
- Bottled water to stay hydrated. They have a nice little coffee and snacks stand, but it's in the main building, so you may want to have your bottle in your pool bag.
- A waterproof phone cover. So you can snap great pictures while in the springs.
Several other attractions are available, including an ice museum, dog sledding demonstrations, and hiking trails around the resort.
This is also a popular place for Northern Lights watching. Away from the city and up in the north, you can see the majestic Aurora Borealis from Chena Hot Springs between November and March. They even have a special outdoor structure with huge glass windows and comfortable chairs.
Location: 56.5 mile Chena Hot Springs Rd., Pleasant Valley, Fairbanks, AK 99711
Opening Hours: Check-in: 4:00 P.M. – Check-Out: 11:00 A.M.
Extend your Alaskan adventure with these 22 amazing things to do in Juneau.
#9 Ice Museums
The Aurora Ice Museum
If you're visiting Chena Hot Springs, you might want to stop at the Aurora Ice Museum there. For us, this was actually why we visited Chena.
The Aurora Ice Museum is the world’s largest year-round ice environment. That said, it's not that huge. They have enough on display to keep you going for half an hour.
They also have a bar, and you can buy an Appletini for fifteen bucks – a beverage served in a glass of ice! Everything is made of ice, even the seats and the bar itself.
Don't worry about it being cold. First, it's only -7 Celsius (or -20 Fahrenheit). That's cold but not that bad by Alaskan standards. More importantly, they lend you warm winter parkas as you enter, so you're protected.
You can only enter as part of a group. No need to book ahead of time; get to Chena Hot Springs and get your timed ticket at the office. This is what our group looked like just before entering.
And some photos from our visit -
Location: 56.5 Chena Hot Springs Rd, Fairbanks, AK 99712
Opening hours: Monday to Sunday – 11:00 A.M., 1:00 A.M., 3:00 P.M., 5:00 P.M., 7:00 P.M.
Admission fees: Adult (18+) – $15 – Youth (6-17) – $10
Fairbanks Ice Museum
IMO, if you're that up north, it's good to add an ice museum to your list of things to do in Fairbanks. We chose to go to Chena Hot Springs, but if you wish to avoid the drive, there's The Fairbanks Ice Museum.
The place is a former theater transformed into an ice museum.
Your visit includes a movie about ice sculpting from start to finish. You will also witness an ice sculpting demo and see up close how simple ice is transformed into art.
Additional tour attractions include an ice slide path where you can ride a sled (sounds like fun for kids). Like in the Aurora Ice Museum, you’ll also have a chance to enjoy a drink from an ice glass.
Location: 500 2nd Ave, Fairbanks, AK 99701
Opening Hours: Every day: 10:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M.
Admission Fees: Adult: $12 – Seniors and Military: $11 – Children (6 to 12): $6 – Children (5 under): FREE
#10 Alyeska Pipeline Visitor Center
The Alyeska Pipeline Visitor Center is an outdoor exhibit next to the pipeline. Located along the Steese Highway, just north of downtown Fairbanks, this can be a nice little stop if you drive this scenic route.
It's not far from the town itself, so if you're interested in seeing the big pipes, it's worth adding to your list of things to do in Fairbanks.
The Trans Alaska Pipeline System is a staggering 800-mile-long pipeline system – the largest in the world. Oil travels along the pipe from Alaska’s North Slope to the northernmost ice-free port in North America, the town of Valdez.
Location: 1671 Steese Highway, Fairbanks, AK 99712
Opening hours: Every day – All hours – “This is just a simple stop along the road. But it does provide several informative boards.”
Admission Fees: FREE
#11 Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum will take you back to view perfectly restored early 20th-century luxury cars. The automobile collection includes 85 American vehicles, from early race cars to the most elegant classics.
Almost all these rolling antiques are driven during summer to ensure they are still operable. If you're a car aficionado, add this museum to your list of things to do in Fairbanks.
One thing you should know is they only open on Wednesdays and Sundays. There’s also no place to eat inside, and the place is kind of far from the nearest food establishment, so catch a bite to eat before you head for this museum.
Location: 212 Wedgewood Dr, Wedgewood Resort, Fairbanks, AK|
Opening Hours: Wednesday and Sunday – NOON to 6:00 P.M.
Admission Fees: General – $10 – Children (6-12) – $5 – Children (5 below) – FREE – Family Season Pass (1 year for two adults and four children) – $60
Looking for more Alaskan adventures? Check out these 13 must-visit destinations in Alaska, complete with a map.
Where to stay when visiting Fairbanks
Check out my separate post on how to find cheap(ish) hotels in Fairbanks. This can be challenging, so I dedicated a separate guide to the questions and recommendations.
Looking for accommodation tips in other parts of Alaska? Find essential advice on where to stay in Seward.
Whew! That was a long list of things to do in Fairbanks!
And to place everything in perspective - literally - here's a map of all the things to do in Fairbanks that are mentioned in this post -
This post took a while to research and produce. I hope you find it helpful! Please leave me a comment to let me know what you think or if you have any questions about visiting Fairbanks!
Looking to explore beyond the urban areas in Alaska? Check out my mega-post about Alaska's National Parks!